Jerusalem is full of contested ancient sites, from the sacred acropolis claimed by both Jews and Muslims to the divided territory within the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Most recently, in May 2021, fighting broke out between Arab residents and Jewish settlers in a neighborhood north of the Old City called Sheikh Jarrah that is home to many ancient tombs attributed to both Jewish and Muslim sages.

A lesser-known conflict in the neighborhood pits religious Jews against France and the Louvre. The trouble began in 1863, when French senator Félicien de Saulcy excavated the tomb and provoked outrage by the local Jewish community which accused him of desecrating graves. A Jewish Frenchwoman named Berthe Levy Bertrand, who was married to a distinguished Parisian archaeologist, tried to purchase the site from an Arab family to preserve it.

It took her a decade and a half, but she succeeded and had a wall built around the tomb with a sign dedicating the site to “science and the veneration of the true children of Israel.” A few years later, in 1886, a prominent male relative of Bertrand with close connections to the French government—and who may have funded the original purchase—turned the deed over to the French government. France has claimed it as government property ever since and kept the site open for tourists until 2010, when it was closed for repairs and renovations.

Some ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups, also called Haredi, believed the closure was a ruse to keep them from praying at what they considered a holy Jewish site. They began to demonstrate weekly outside its iron gate and filed a suit in 2016 in a Jerusalem rabbinical court demanding that France return the tomb to Jewish hands.

The case was dropped, but Israeli leaders pressured French officials to reopen the tomb. When they did, in 2019, a scuffle between Haredi and French gendarmes led to minor injuries and prompted France to shut the gates. The tomb has since been reopened, but only to a small number of visitors who must first register and pay a small fee online.a

Undeterred, the Haredi protestors have filed suit in a Paris court against the French foreign ministry, arguing that the 1886 contract was not signed and therefore not legal. They also filed suit against the Louvre, contending that the museum was “deliberately concealing the bones” attributed to Queen Helena, according to a copy of the filing, a charge the museum denies.

Rabbi Yitzhak Mamo, who is leading the effort to gain control of the site and have the human remains returned, called the saga “an amazing story of archaeology and the politics of the past through so many generations,” and is confident that his side will be vindicated in court. For their part, French officials say they have no intention of turning over their prized tomb, and the tricolor continues to fly above the site of de Saulcy’s dig.